Director in Focus: John Cassavetes – Love Streams

Love Streams (1984)
Starring John Cassavetes, Gena Rowlands, Seymour Cassel

As I’ve talked about before, Cassavetes focuses a lot on the psychological fragility of his characters. Often his main characters feel like Kerouac characters, they live life to self-destructive extremes, exploding like roman candles and inevitably fizzling when they can’t handle things. In Love Streams, he spends the first half of the film exploring two separate figures that fit this bill, then bringing them together for the last sad, heartbreaking hour. And, as with so many of his films, Gena Rowlands is the force of nature that powers things forward. Cassavetes also holds his own and looks much older than his appearance in 1977’s Opening Night. While I don’t know the details, it wouldn’t surprise me if this was when his health problems were starting.

Robert (Cassavetes) is an alcoholic writer who lives in a labrynthine mansion in the Hollywood Hills, populated with a parade of call girls. He finds women to obsess about, charms them, then reveals his true nature of drunken hopelessness and they leave. Sarah (Rowlands) is a women going through a divorce and trying to cling desperately to her teenage daughter, while her ex (Cassel) argues that Sarah’s history of mental illness makes her unfit to be the primary custody holder. These two figures come together and share an interesting connection that leads to a sad and rather bleak ending.

The film does wander as Cassavetes is wont to do, though it wanders into some interesting places. In particular is a segement of the film devoted to Robert’s meeting his son, now about 10 years old, and being pressured to take him for the weekend. Being the horrible figure that he is, he frightens the kid off with the bevy of women lounging around his house, chases the kid down and brings him back, then gets him drunk. Impulsively, Robert decides they are going to Vegas, where he drops the boy off to go carousing with women. When he shows up the next morning, the boy is weeping and saying he wants to go back to his mother, which pisses off the drunken Robert off and he berates the boy for not being a man. This is very interesting as we have seen what a grown up child Robert is for the majority of the film. Love Streams stands as one of the more captivating works by this director, with some strong artistic moments.

Next: we finish things up with the slapstick comedy Big Trouble (not the Tim Allen movie!)

Director in Focus: John Cassavetes – Gloria

Gloria (1980)
Starring Gena Rowlands, Buck Henry, Julie Carmen, John Adames

One of the few aspects of Cassavetes’ films that kept his work from falling into self-indulgent tripe was his muse and wife, Gena Rowlands. Rowlands regularly grounds the films she appears in with performances that challenge typical ideas about women. She’s just one of those actresses that its a joy to sit back and watch work. And here, in Gloria, she was given a larger commercial venue to display her skill. And it was thanks to Rowlands that Cassavetes directed this film in the first place. Cassavetes has originally just written the screenplay and sold it to Columbia Pictures, after which Rowlands was cast in the lead. She highly recommended her husband to direct his own script and he was hired.

The story follows the titular Gloria (Rowlands), a woman who grew up around mob types and has the hard exterior to match. She ends up in the custody of young boy (Adames) whose mob accountant father and family are murdered. Gloria uses her mob connections to try and negotiate she and the boy’s freedom from the endless pursuits. Along the way, Gloria clashes with her young charge, leaves him to fend for himself, but eventually chases back after him. Like the majority of Cassavetes’ movies, this is about a character, not necessarily the plot.

Unlike most of Cassavetes movies, this doesn’t have the ploddingly dull feel to it. The pace is very well done and some thing is always happening. Add to that Rowlands, who gives great performances every time and you have a film that actually had a bit of a commercial life. In fact, the premise of this film would be the basis for Luc Besson’s Leon about a decade later.What enjoyed most about this picture was, how the premise could easily have been maudlin crap, but Rowlands never lets her character fall for any “maternal instinct” nonsense. She has enjoyed a life unmarried without a children, and just because she is with this young boy she isn’t going to start treating him like her son. Even in the film’s conclusion we’re shown that she will not change who she is and is going to talk to this child like an adult.

Next up: Love Streams

Hypothetical Film Festival – Unreliable Narrators

There’s a very interesting plot device called the Unreliable Narrator, wherein the point of view you are getting the story from comes from a person who is possibly skewing the facts in their favor, creating a story that is not quite true. Here’s some films that use that idea to great effect.

Rashomon (1950, dir. Akira Kurosawa)
Rashomon was the introduction of Kurosawa and post-war Japanese cinema to the world. The framing of the story was unlike anything that had really been seen in cinema, but had roots in older literature, particularly Shakespeare (whose works would be a major influence on Kurosawa throughout his career). A woodcutter and priest are seeking shelter in the husk of an old building while it storms outside. A passerby enters and they explain a strange murder of a samurai and the court case in which his wife, the bandit being accused, and the spirit of the samurai himself all testify. Through the three differing viewpoints we get three different pictures, with the added framing of these figures telling us the story. It’s a like a hedge maze of narrative.

Amadeus (1984, dir. Milos Forman)
The elderly composer Salieri tries to kill himself but is stopped. Later he is visited by a young priest and the old man tells the tale of his rivalry with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and how Salieri believes he killed the virtuoso. Salieri of course frames himself as pious and obedient, devoted to tradtion. Amadeus is seen a lewd and bawdy figure. Salieri sees his craft as a gift from God and cannot comprehend how someone as heathen and ribald as Amadeus was given a gift that far surpasses his own. The question we must ask is, how honest is this portrayal of the composer, and is this Salieri’s attempt to justify his hand in Amadeus’ death?

Memento (2001, dir. Christopher Nolan)
Both the film that introduced us to director Nolan (The Prestige, The Dark Knight) and what presents probably the most unreliable of unreliable narrators. Leonard is a man without the ability to form new memories. This was the result of a break-in at his home years prior that also resulted in the death of his wife. Now Leonard is on a hunt for the man responsible. Because of his lack of new memory he has tattooed key facts about the assailant on his body. Beyond that, he carries a Polaroid camera where ever he goes, photographing acquaintances and scribbling notes about them on the pictures. But what does Leonard really know? As we experience time in the same way Leonard does, we will ask lots of questions and when the disturbing conclusion comes about we will be left questioning Leonard himself.

Spider (2002, dir. David Cronenberg)
Dennis Cleg (Ralph Fiennes) has just been released from a mental asylum. The reason why he was there in the first place is not revealed at first, instead we follow him to the work home he has been assigned to in an attempt to transition back into society. He immediately draws the ire of the housekeeper and befriends housemate Terrence (John Neville). Mixed into his day to day life are nightmarish flashbacks to his childhood, focusing on his alcoholic father (Gabriel Byrne) and his beaten down mother (. The story of their tumultuous relationship is what forms Dennis and ultimately drives him to the asylum. The reason behind his nickname, Spider, is tied directly to this childhood incident. But then you must ask yourself, how reliable are the childhood flashbacks of a psychopath?

Bubba Ho-Tep (2002, dir. Don Coscarelli)
The film is told from the perspective of Elvis Presley (played brilliantly by Bruce Campbell), or it could be mechanic Sebastian Haff. Presley explains that he traded places with Haff in the 1970s to get away from the business, and for some reason the staff of his nursing home doesn’t believe him. Also living in this home is a black man who claims to be President Kennedy (Ossie Davis), explaining that he was dyed black and abandoned in the nursing home after the assassination attempt. Terrorizing the elderly at night in this home is an ancient Egyptian mummy who, for some reason, has taken on the garb of a cowboy. The two men, unable to get the staff on their side, take matters into their own hands and battle the mummy. But what if they are simply just two crazy people?

My 40 Favorite Film Moments – Part 8

35) The Wedding of Kermit and Piggy (The Muppets Take Manhattan, 1984, dir. Frank Oz)

It will never be a canonical great moment in cinema, but for me as a little kid it was the perfect ending to the Muppet film trilogy. You get an insanely large cast of characters, including those from just around the block on Sesame Street. Also, Piggy’s laugh when Kermit asks about Gonzo still cracks me up.

36) Pure Imagination (Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, 1971, dir. Mel Stuart)

Gene Wilder in the 1970s is always perfection. And this song works perfectly to introduce us to the inner working of the fantastical chocolate factory.

37) You’re Shit (Happiness, 1998, dir. Todd Solondz)

One of the most funny and depressing movie openings ever.

38) Chance Enters The World (Being There, 1980, dir. Hal Ashby)

In Peter Sellers’ final performance he gave us the best film of his career. The mentally challenged Chance is forced to leave the brownstone for which he gardened after the owner dies. It’s implied Chance was the owner’s illegitimate son, and he never left the house in his life. This scene is gorgeous piece of comedy following Chance on his first day out.

39) Sardine? (The ‘Burbs, 1988, dir. Joe Dante)

This film was watched endlessly in my house as a child, and I think it is still one Tom Hanks’ best comedies and criminally underrated. This is the perfect scene of awkwardness as the characters meet the neighbors they suspect are serial killers

40) Starchild (2001: A Space Odyssey, 1968, dir. Stanley Kubrick)

The most hopeful film ending of all time!

My 40 Favorite Film Moments – Part 7

31) Dancing Chicken (Strosek, 1977, dir. Werner Herzog)

The final scene of a very odd film about Germans coming to live and work in rural America. Don’t ask questions, just experience.

32) I Knew These People (Paris, Texas, 1984, dir. Wim Wenders)

This is a slow burning film, but when it hits it emotional peak (this scene) it devastates you. Harry Dean Stanton has never been better, and Nastassja Kinski is perfection. One of the most over looked films of the 1980s. If you haven’t, find this and watch it!

Wild Card Tuesdays – True Stories

True Stories (1986, dir. David Byrne)
Starring David Byrne, John Goodman, Swoosie Kurtz, Spalding Gray

I remember making long trips in the car as a child and feeling a sense of excitement as we pulled onto off ramps, stopping a strange gas stations and towns on our way. The journey and these stops always held much more interest to me than the destination it seems. I can distinctly remember driving through the Smoky Mountains and drinking Faygo Root Beet, a brand I had not had before. True Stories felt, for me, like stopping in of those little towns along the way and staying a bit longer than usual. Virgil, Texas is however a byproduct of the strange mind of David Byrne, lead singer of The Talking Heads. Things are quite off from the real world, but that just makes it all that more interesting.

Byrne is the nameless narrator, decked out in stereotypical Texan gear: Ten gallon hat, western wear, cowboy boots, and driving around a cherry red Cadillac. He delivers exposition with a very monotone demeanor, explaining the underlying psychological aspects of urbanization creeping into Virgil. Among the cast are John Goodman as Louis, a man so desperate to find a mate he has a marquee outside his home reading “Wife Wanted”, Swoosie Kurtz as Miss Rollings, a rich woman so lazy she never leaves her bed, and Spalding Gray as Earl, a man who has not spoken to his wife in 15 years but still seems to have a happy life at home. The stories are all leading towards a town-wide celebration taking place on stage being constructed in the wilderness. The Narrator visits with the characters who seem to have a familiarity with him, and various Talking Heads songs are re purposed to expand upon characters’ motivations.

I’ve always enjoyed when musicians set out to make films. They are rarely huge hits and usually end up as cult classic movies. I knew going into this one that Byrne has a very unique sensibility, which I had seen in videos of his concerts, and in particular the Jonathan Demme concert film Stop Making Sense. That sensibility is translated here into a film that is more like a quirky short story collection than anything overly cinematic. And it totally works. Certain songs, like “Dream Organizer”, so perfectly work for the character they are attached to that you have to wonder if this was the character Byrne had in mind when he originally wrote the song. The cinematography is also top notch, I think a lot of that coming from Byrne’s background in art school. The composition of many shots are not what we expect, leaving tons of negative space, and making for something that could be a framed photo on its own.

It’s also interesting to see some actors before they made it big, and one whom I never thought of as a traditional film actor. Spalding Gray was a quite a surprise to see, as I only knew him through his monologues (you should all check out Swimming to Cambodia). He does a decent enough job, though comes off a little stiff. Goodman and Kurtz are definitely the best of the bunch, each hamming it up in a way that totally works with the atmosphere Byrne has created. Jo Harvey Allen was also a standout as a perpetually lying woman who takes credit for “writing half of Billie Jean” as well as being JFK’s lover in Texas, whom he met with before the assassination. The film is definitely a fun, quirky picture that can be incredibly refreshing compared to most Hollywood films.

My 40 Favorite Film Moments – Part 5

21) I’m Easy (Nashville, 1975, dir. Robert Altman)

In this ensemble cast film, Altman had his actors write and perform their own songs. Keith Carradine plays the third member of a country folk trio who is a bit of a lothario. The women gathered in the Exit/In all believe the song is written for them, when in reality its for Lily Tomlin’s character a gospel singer and married mother of two who has been having an affair with the singer. The way the camera works in conjuction with the actors’ faces is beautiful.

22)You’ve Got Me? Who’s Got You? (Superman: The Movie, 1979, dir. Richard Donner)

Its by no means the greatest film ever made, but it holds a sentimental place in my heart. And this moment, where Superman makes his public debut is just wonderful. It doesn’t take itself too seriously and it doesn’t need to be grim n’ gritty or “badass”. It’s just a perfect superhero moment. And I must admit, I’ve used the flying statistic line many times.

My 40 Favorite Film Moments – Part 4

16) Interrogation (The Dark Knight, 2008, dir. Christopher Nolan)

My favorite comic book based film, and an all around great movie. The screenplay is one of the tightest I’ve ever encountered and this is a great scene that really gets to the heart of the relationship between The Joker and Batman. The Joker is in love with Batman, not that he wants to have sex with him, but he is emotionally fulfilled by Batman’s existence. Without Batman, The Joker would have no one worthy of him to combat.

17) What’s In The Box (Se7en, 1995, dir. David Fincher)

This is one of those instances where every one is hitting their mark and it all comes together to make such a great film. I’m usually not a fan of Fincher, but the cinematography and editing here plus the actors all delivering make for one of the best climactic film scenes ever.

My 40 Favorite Film Moments – Part 3

11) Rhapsody in Blue (Manhattan, 1979, dir. Woody Allen)

New York is one of the great mythical cities, in that there is the New York that is real and there is the New York that is a fantasy of our minds. Allen captures this magical New York perfectly in the opening of Manhattan, using classic black and white photography as well as the signature George Gershwin tune.

12) Please Don’t Tell My Mother (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, 1969, dir. Milos Forman)

This was one of the first films to showcase the acting chops of Jack Nicholson, but I like this scene because of the performances Louise Fletcher and Brad Dourif bring to the table. It is rare you see a scene so perfectly acted. All of these actors are at the top of their game.

My 40 Favorite Film Moments – Part 2

6) Waiting For a Train (Once Upon a Time in the West, 1969, dir. Sergio Leone)

Wordless, with a soundtrack provided by found objects in the setting. A squeaky windmill, a dripping water tower, the steady rhythm of a steam engine. It provides the perfect introduction to the film’s protagonist, Harmonica (Charles Bronson).

7) Getting Baptized (Ed Wood, 1994, dir. Tim Burton)

Hack director Wood has gotten financing from an L.A. church. One of the conditions for the money to come through is that the entire cast and crew of Plan Nine from Outer Space will be baptized. The unaffected homosexual producer Bunny Breckenridge (Bill Murray) takes the hefty spiritual ritual with little thought in a cleverly funny moment. This is also Burton’s masterpiece in my opinion.

8) Flowers (Harold and Maude, 1971, dir. Hal Ashby)

Ashby is one of the greats of the 1970s, and this scene featuring Ruth Gordon, Bud Cort, and the music of Cat Stevens is a picture of perfect composition. The transition from the field of flowers to the military cemetery is a very beautiful one.

9) He’ll Keep Calling Me (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, 1989, dir. John Hughes)

This scene is a perfect summation of the profound indecision and anxiety Cameron suffers from. Throughout the film, he’s a character who is simply pushed around by his off screen father or by Ferris or by authority in general. This is every thing going on in his brain.

10) Make the Sun Rise (Black Orpheus, 1959, dir. Marcel Camus)
Set during Carnival in Brazil, the film retells the mythic story of Orpheus and Eurydice through an Afro-Brazilian guitarist and the woman he loves. In this final scene, we see that the tragic story of these lovers is part of a cycle and this children are beginning to play down a path that is both beautiful, but painful.